After a year of escalating book bans and resulting backlash, public schools are increasingly relying on soft censorship to limit which books students can access.
In addition to banning books outright, school districts are separating titles about so-called sensitive subjects from others in school libraries, placing warning labels on them or requiring parents to sign opt-in slips allowing children to read them — paperwork that can easily be missed among the piles of other forms families have to fill out at the start of the school year.
Free speech advocates say these practices are as troubling as bans — particularly when the books singled out overwhelmingly have themes related to race, gender and sexuality and are written by authors who are women, LGBTQ+ and/or people of color.
“The First Amendment actually prohibits viewpoint-based restrictions on access,” said Jason Groth, deputy legal director for the ACLU of Utah, where the state’s largest district has put book restrictions in place. “So putting disfavored books in another part of the library that … needs parental permission, or adding some other sort of restricted access, goes against the First Amendment. One of the considerations to keep in mind is that it creates a stigma on the content of those books.”
In a typical year, PEN America, a nonprofit that advocates for free expression, receives a handful of reports related to book banning. That changed dramatically over a nine-month period from 2021 to 2022, when the organization identified 1,586 cases of book banning concerning 1,145 unique titles by 874 authors. Of the banned books, 41 percent contain protagonists or other major characters of color, 22 percent of the books discuss race, 33 percent have LGBTQ+ themes and 25 percent feature content about sex, puberty or relationships.
The rise of book bans comes after states have passed laws limiting what schools can teach about race, sex and gender. The legislation coincides with the rise of parents’ rights groups that have gained momentum during the pandemic and demanded more say in what children learn in class. Politicians have capitalized on the concerns of such parents, many of whom were spurred to action after conservatives began spreading the idea that public schools are teaching students critical race theory and indoctrinating them into a radical left agenda. As education has become the epicenter of the nation’s culture wars, teachers and administrators have faced harassment and hostility from the communities they serve.
Book restrictions, which include “soft bans,” are “really creating a crisis situation for our educators and for students that just doesn't need to exist,” said Shirley Robinson, executive director for the Texas Library Association, which recently formed a statewide advocacy coalition made up of more than 3,000 Texas residents to advocate for students to have the freedom of inquiry. “The thing that's really scary to me is that parents don't realize that this is happening because obviously an opt-in policy means that if you missed that piece of paper, among the thousand pieces of paper that you get when your child goes back to school at the beginning of the year, your child will not have access.”
Robinson added that some librarians and teachers are self-censoring by removing certain reading materials or genres before anyone complains or simply not purchasing books they suspect will lead to complaints. She added that the fears of these educators aren’t unreasonable given that conservative groups are teaching Texans how to run for school boards, oppose library books and monitor teachers and librarians on social media.
PEN America found that 41 percent of book-banning cases it tracked over nine months are connected to politicians calling for books to be removed from schools. Policymakers will continue to play an important role in book banning as PEN America expects school oversight bills to continue getting passed next year. These bills call for “curriculum transparency,” silence on LGBTQ+ issues in schools and book banning.
In Texas, a list of 850 books that state Rep. Matt Krause flagged for containing potentially objectionable content continues to influence which reading materials school districts feature in their collections. Krause first introduced the list last fall, and today, Texas leads the country in book bans, with 713 book removals during the nine-month period PEN America analyzed. Along with total bans of books, Texas schools are imposing soft censorship on titles. Districts such as Keller, Cy-Fair and Richardson allow parents to decide if students can access the entire catalog of books.
Restrictions on books largely stem from bias against historically marginalized groups, said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom.
“The fact is that gay, queer and transgender people, African Americans, Latin people, Indigenous people have finally found a voice and a place in our society and have found a voice and a place in libraries,” she said. “Now we're seeing an effort to erase those voices, to stigmatize those individuals and send a message of exclusion that, given these are public institutions, should not be happening at all.”
Using soft censorship to limit access to school book collections isn’t unique to Texas. In states such as Utah, Virginia, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Florida and California, school districts have enacted policies that give parents more oversight of what students read, alarming critics who argue that these restrictions violate the free speech rights of students, ignore the training of school librarians and send harmful messages about the books targeted.
Alpine School District, Utah’s largest, decided in July to remove 52 books by 41 authors, including Jodi Picoult’s “Nineteen Minutes,” Judy Blume’s “Forever” and Mariko Tamaki’s “This One Summer,” all books by women with sex scenes or LGBTQ+ storylines. In fact, 42 percent of the books the district singled out have LGBTQ+ characters or themes, PEN America found.
The decision stemmed from the March passage of House Bill 374, a Utah law prohibiting “sensitive materials in public schools” after groups such as Utah Parents United pressed policymakers to take action to get books deemed obscene or inappropriate removed from schools. After public outcry about its decision to pull dozens of books from school libraries, however, the Alpine school board temporarily held off on its plan to remove these books from library shelves. Instead, it will place these books in restricted areas of school libraries and allow parents to decide if their children may check out these titles.
The board’s reversal of the book ban is a “step in the right direction,”Jonathan Friedman, PEN America’s director of free expression and education programs, said in a statement. But he added that the new policy “still constitutes a barrier to the books.”
Alpine School District did not respond to The 19th’s request for comment.
One Florida district, Collier County Public Schools, recently garnered headlines for placing warning labels on more than 100 books, many of which featured racial or LGBTQ+ themes. The warnings explain that some community members have found the books “unsuitable for students.”
A Florida law enacted this year, House Bill 1467, will allow residents to challenge library books they deem “pornographic” or otherwise offensive. The law requires school districts to report all such complaints to the education commissioner, and from there, the state Department of Education can include the titles on a list of book challenges distributed to schools. The goal, PEN suspects, is to discourage schools from including any books on the list in their libraries.
Caldwell-Stone said that book challenges are spreading due to the efforts of a small number of groups that have been particularly vocal about reading materials. They “have been able to seize control of the process and really cause a moral panic over books that are both age- and developmentally appropriate but address topics they disagree with,” she said.
Started by two former Florida school board members, Moms for Liberty is a national group that advocates for parents to have more oversight over their children’s education. Cofounder Tiffany Justice told The 19th in March that some books in school libraries, such as George M. Johnson’s “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” are too graphic for students. That book is a coming-of-age memoir, told through essays, about growing up Black and queer.
“People say, ‘Oh, the stuff that's in the books, the kids see all the time anyway,’” she said. “It doesn't make it OK. George Johnson wrote a book [in which] he discusses the fact that he was molested by an adult. He was a victim of pedophilia. … Horrible things happen to kids, but does every child have to be ready for that trauma?”
A March 2022 American Library Association survey of 1,000 voters and 472 parents of public school students found that 82 percent of voters and 81 percent of parents agreed that “the ability of young people to have access to books from which they can learn about and understand different perspectives” should be protected. Seventy-six percent of voters and 72 percent of parents also agreed that “individual parents can set rules for their own children, but they do not have the right to decide for other parents what books are available to their children.” And 74 percent of parents said they have “a great deal of confidence in public libraries in their local school district to make good decisions about what books to include in their collections.”
In Utah, Groth raised concerns that Alpine School District failed to properly review the books it has restricted. In July, the school board said that it had reviewed 275 books in just three days, opting to remove the 52 in question, with plans to do the same to 32 other books when they could read them “cover to cover.” That admission led the board’s detractors to doubt that school officials read any of the books singled out in such a short time frame, suggesting that those titles were targeted because of their themes.
“The way they talked about it at the board meeting, they didn't actually read the books,” said Marissa Bischoff, president of the Utah Library Association. “So we don't know what kind of evaluation they got, but it wasn't the full evaluation that it needed. It's really concerning because we want to…be careful to look at and see the merit of these books and not just go by one passage or the title and make these big decisions.”
Tamaki’s “This One Summer” was a 2015 Caldecott Honor Book, a label recognizing the graphic novel as a distinguished picture book. Other award-winners on Alpine’s restricted book list include “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky” by Heidi Durrow, who, like Tamaki, is a woman of color. Durrow’s book won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction. “All Boys Aren’t Blue” has received multiple honors, including from the Young Adult Library Services Association. But last year, it was one of the nation’s most challenged books, according to the American Library Association.
“Students and people in general should be able to experience art and literature that depict the rich human experience that is life as we know it, and that includes the experiences of LGBTQ people,” said Marina Lowe, policy director of Equality Utah, which works to secure equal rights and protections for LGBTQ+ Utahns.
Singling out books with LGBTQ+ themes sends the message that the subject matter covered is a problem and, by extension, the students who belong to those communities are a problem, Lowe said. She’s also distrubed by restrictions on such books because she said no one is forcing students to read or check them out. They are available to patrons in school libraries who want to read them, she said.
“They're not required reading, but they should be accessible,” Lowe said. “At the end of the day, we really do sort of a disservice to our students if we don't allow them to have access to materials that can be challenging in some circumstances, perhaps, but allow them to grow and learn.”
Nationally, book bans took place in 86 school districts in 26 states from July 1, 2021, to March 31, 2022, PEN America found. The districts include 2,899 schools with a collective student population of more than two million. Ninety-eight percent of these book banning cases did not follow best practices developed by the National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Library Association. These guidelines include the filing of complaints about books by community members; the development of book review committees made up of librarians, teachers, school leaders and local residents; and maintaining student access to the books in question until they are officially banned. Books should first be challenged at a specific school, and, if a decision is appealed, then the district would get involved. So, school board officials making unilateral decisions to restrict or ban books conflicts with established guidelines.
As banning and restrictions increase, the American Library Association is mobilizing its supporters. In April, it launched Unite Against Book Bans, an online toolkit that individuals can download to understand how book bans happen, the best way to fight them and how to team up with other community members as grassroots activists.
“When individuals stand up and speak out against censorship at board meetings, boards are less likely to act in an arbitrary or precipitous manner and remove books simply because someone in the audience is complaining about a book,” Caldwell-Stone said. “But it also requires a long-term commitment of being engaged locally — knowing who is being elected to school boards and library boards, participating in those elections, making sure you vote and making sure that your friends and relatives vote and support free access to information when they vote.”